2016 Volvo XC90 T8 [w/videos]
World's First Three-Row Plug-In Hybrid Has The Makings Of A Sleeper Hit
EngineTwin-Charged 2.0L I4 / 9.2 kWh Li-ion
Power~ 400 hp / 472 lb-ft
0-60 Time5.8 Seconds
Top Speed143 MPH
Curb Weight5,165 LBS
Cargo64 CU-FT (est)
MPG59 MPGe Combined (est)
Best Deal Price$42,805
But there are certainly instances of OEM-supplied sleepers too, where subtle badging or discrete modifications belie an impressive improvement in performance. In the from-the-factory version, just a few letters can make a world of difference: SHO, GNX and GLH all being excellent examples from history.
Volvo has its own history of sleeping Swedes, of course – who among us hasn't gleefully pointed out a 740 Turbo wagon to a chorus of blank looks from the uninitiated? But this latest sleeper, called out by the T8 badge on the back of the 2016 XC90, breaks new ground for the whole somnambulant genre. Not only does that "T8" mean greater performance than the standard version of the crossover, but, it also boasts impressive green-cred.
I was lucky to take a turn in the Volvo XC90 T8, with its potent plug-in electric drivetrain, around the Catalonian coast of Spain. The top-trim crossover proved compelling, and not just because it can brag "59 mpge" on its window sticker.
- The meat of what makes the T8 interesting is, of course, a powertrain that uses a staggering number of technologies to produce a max system output of (roughly) 400 horsepower and 472 pound-feet of torque. To get there, Volvo has supercharged and turbocharged the 2.0-liter direct-injection four-cylinder gas engine under the front hood; good for 318 hp and 295 lb-ft on its own. Adding to the mix is a beefy electric motor mounted on the rear axle, kicking out another 82 hp and 177 lb-ft, to the rear wheels (under ideal conditions).
- Depending on the drive mode you've selected, that complex power delivery system works in a few ways. Hybrid is the default, and uses power from the gas engine and electric motor as needed, with great fuel economy its designated mission in life. (We don't have full EPA ratings yet, but Volvo is claiming a combined US rating of 59 miles per gallon gasoline equivalent.) Pure mode offers all-electric driving of "more than" 40 kilometers (25 miles) based on the European cycle. AWD mode drives all four wheels on demand, while Save socks away battery power for later use.
- From the perspective of fun driving, it's Power mode that I found most interesting. Here the T8 really reveals itself as the aforementioned sleeper, using electric torque to blister the pavement at low speeds, and the twin-charged gas mill to keep the pace up. The difference in throttle response between Hybrid and Power mode is noticeable, and hilarious and unquestionably quicker than that of the standard XC90 T6. This is the good stuff.
- Also good is the modulation between gas and electric power (and both at once). Though I could hear the engine kicking on when moving from the all-electric driving to hybrid, in most instances the flow of power was pretty seamless.
- In terms of handling, the T8's case for sleeper status falls back a bit. The low/center positioning of the battery pack does give the Volvo a planted feeling, and I'll admit that the added weight wasn't a huge detractor, but I wasn't ever tickled to push the big utility vehicle harder through successive corners. The ride is smooth and composed, even on the firm side for the class, but it falls well short of sporting. I think that's fine, of course.
- What's less good is the rather artificial feeling steering, which nitpicks the driver when the lane-keep assist system is active (rightly, I suppose), but also feels a little wonky when that system is deactivated. Overall steering feels sterile and kind of slow, except for at very low speeds where it lightens considerably, and quickens helpfully for parking lot maneuvers.
- It's in the parking lots, suburban boulevards, freeways and other mild driving environments of the world that the XC90 T8 will excel. Even with the gas engine chipping in, it is quiet at speed, with a cabin that's even superior to its more conventional T6 brother. Soft leather trims all seven, reasonably capacious seats (this is the first-ever seven-seat plug-in hybrid, for the record), and even with the extra battery pack aboard cargo and passenger room is ample.
- One telltale sign that you're inside the T8 model is the lovely shift lever, wrought from Orrefors crystal in a metal surround. The stubby lever is one of Volvo's only overt nods to aspirations for a higher class of luxury shopper, but I'll admit that it does feel good in the hand. The action of changing gears with it, however, is a lot more awkward than with the lesser T6's standard automatic shift gate, as the crystal unit requires multiple 'taps' to move between drive and reverse, for instance. It's a bit like the famous BMW 'flipper' but more fiddly. Still, it's nice to look at.
- As is the game-changing Volvo Sensus touchscreen infotainment interface. As I talked about in my T6 review, it's smooth responses and fast action are almost Apple-good, and the system should help close the sale on a lot of XC90s.
That pricing would put it in the same conversation as the more powerful variants of three-row vehicles from Germany, like the BMW X5 xDrive50i and the Mercedes-Benz GL450, but with a strong attraction for the green-leaners. A showdown with the upcoming Tesla Model X also seems inevitable, and though the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV won't fit in terms of market segment, shoppers simply looking for plug-in tech and space might glance at both. In all cases, obviously, a final sticker price will matter, but don't sleep on this T8 as a real competitor at the top of its class.
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